The importance of breathing: an inspiring story

Breathing is such a natural process that we often don’t think about it.  The average person will take between 17,000 and 23,000 breaths a day.    Yet, most people don’t breathe to best advantage and this can reinforce our level of stress and anxiety. We may sometimes even hold our breath without knowing it.

We may find that our breathing is very shallow when we are experiencing some pain in our body.  The other day as I was leaving the house, I closed the door on my finger.  Following the usual expletive, I noticed that I was holding my breath.  What benefit does that provide other than deprive the body of oxygen?  One of my old teachers used to tell me to breath into the pain and to welcome it as an important teaching.  I have often applied this strategy when dealing with a headache. Along with deep breathing, the muscles relax because there is really no benefit in keeping muscles in a complete state of tension.  When working on a trigger point (a contracted band of muscle tissue) I will often ask a client to breathe into it as I apply sustained pressure to the area. The tension in the muscle then dissipates.

We also tend to have shallow breath if we are in the middle of an argument with the spouse or are experiencing other highly charged emotional events in our life.  Again, there is nothing to be gained by breath-holding.  I remember as a child being told by my parents to take 20 breaths if I was angry about something.  This wisdom still holds today.

Our personal trainer, Heather, is often reminding me to breathe during my training session with her.  This might sound elementary, but I have found it most insightful at a visceral level.  Some breathe high in the chest while others breathe in a very shallow and irregular pattern.

Miriam, our yoga teacher at Healing on the Danforth will often make us focus on our breathing. As we breathe out, we can complement the stretch and increase our range of motion.

Posture affects the volume of air we can take into our lungs. If we sit on a chair with the back straight and take a normal breath we should observe the volume of air that we take in. If we are slumped over, with no attention to correct posture, our breathing is completely different.

However, correct breathing is not just about taking deeper breaths.  If we watch babies breathe, we can see their belly rise and fall. That is the way we should be breathing. How does that change so that by the time we are adults we are breathing mostly in the upper chest?  Perhaps, after we have been told repeatedly not to do this and not to do that, that we don’t dare take another breath!  Chest breathing is shallow and really does not allow us all the oxygen that we need to flourish more efficiently in a relaxed and normal mode.   

As we age, and experience illness or infirmity, this can cause us to become “chest breathers.”  Unresolved negative emotions can also cause us to not breathe properly. This is a case of the emotional controlling the physical.  Dealing with the emotions properly can offer us a new breath of life!  If our muscles are tense, it is hard for the body to naturally expand itself into a deeper breathing pattern.  If we consciously learn to reengage the abdomen and take deeper breaths, we will discover considerably improved energy.  This in itself presents a good case for attending our yoga sessions because we focus a lot on the breath.

Abdominal breathing is simple, gentle and should not feel forced or exaggerated. Resting two hands on the lower abdomen and one just below the rib cage can effectively help us bring consciousness to our breathing.   It is probably the best way to train ourselves to breathe properly.  

Belly breathing helps clean out the lower lobes of the lungs, allows more oxygen to be absorbed into the blood stream and provides a gentle massage of the internal organs. Like the replacement of the air filter on a car, it enables the whole body to operate more efficiently, including not only the lungs but also the heart.  Proper breathing will also help  make the blood more alkaline.  

Many of us live predominantly with the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight mode) controlling most of our daily activities.  We are being driven to meet deadlines and attend to all sorts of obligatory daily events.  Although we need sympathetic nervous activity to get projects accomplished, if we dwell in this mode all the time, this can be extremely detrimental to our health.  This highly stressful existence is in direct contrast with the healing mode of the parasympathetic nervous system. We need this time to experience the gentler functions of life where digestion and elimination is working at its optimum and sleep is restful and restorative.

Although we need oxygen to survive we need to apply proper breathing technique to flourish.